5 February 1999

Burning the flag was so very stupid

As the manager of a pig farming business which has just finalised our end of year accounts and realised a loss of nearly £100,000, I felt it appropriate to join other pig producers and their families in a march through London on Sat, Jan 23. Our aim was to increase public awareness of the plight of farmers up and down the country and to strengthen the arguments put to government by our representatives in the NFU and British Pig Industry Support Group.

The event seemed to go off with a great deal more good humour and tolerance than I had anticipated. Even the speakers in Trafalgar Square, though passionate, were nonetheless comparatively restrained and spoke eloquently.

When reading the reports the next day, I discovered that the media majored on a few angry, mindless protesters who took it into their heads to burn both a Danish flag and a Union Jack.

I was not a party to those acts and condemn them unreservedly, as no doubt would the march organisers.

What an own goal, to be seen and reported burning the one insignia that we are using to promote British food. To 99.9% of those attending I congratulate you on your show of strength and dignity. We certainly did not applaud the burning of the national flag as reported in the Sunday Telegraph.

John Lambkin

FWfarms manager, Easton Lodge, Cambs.

Olivers diatribe is ill informed

Speaking as a farm lecturer, if I was marking Oliver Walstons TV series I would make the following concluding remarks.

"Although your latest effort is an improvement on the previous two, I still find it disappointing for a student of your ability. You make a series of rash statements with little or no evidence to back them up. When you do quote other knowledgeable sources you do so sparingly and always have the last word so there is no fear of contradiction. In fact, this failing would suit you to a long-term career in TV journalism (but I digress.)

In your latest diatribe, you acknowledge the need for financial support for the hills and uplands although you are unable to suggest in any detail how this might work. What do you propose for other areas of the UK where prairie farming at world market prices is not an option, either? If all green belt could be developed, perhaps farmers would accept the loss of their traditional livelihood more readily? Miners and shipbuilders received redundancy and re-training when they lost their jobs. Why do you feel that farmers are not entitled to the same help? If the family farm becomes uneconomic what value will the land have? And if the answer is "very little" who will pay off the bank? If assistance is not provided for all rural areas in line with their needs, the countryside will revert to a wilderness or disappear under more tarmac and concrete.

Furthermore, you present your report as if the existing problems are peculiar to UK agriculture. Although you frequently refer to Brussels, you fail to put the CAP in context. What of the multitude of small subsistence farmers in Greece for example, is the EU taxpayer not subsidising them too?

Please give some thought to my comments above and present a more informed essay next time."

M Garrett

Lecturer in agriculture, Rowden Farm, Horton Road, Leighton Buzzard, Beds.

Walston says it as it is…

Congratulations to Oliver Walston for daring to be a Daniel. I think hes right. How dare I say so? I can trace my family back at least 700 years, living a few miles from where I now live. Most were peasants working their souls away on the land. My father was one of the last thatchers around these parts. Both grandfather and grandmother came from farming stock, that is to say more as slaves than landed gentry.

I love the land. I love the natural world and animals. I would have given my right arm to farm on my own account. But it was impossible, I just wasnt rich enough.

At the age of 55 I finally made it – 4.5 acres. It was wet and close to houses but I bless the young farmer who sold it to me. We cut hay with old machinery. My husband was an agricultural engineer but never would we own our home, least of all land, on those wages. So he earned his living with a shipping company.

We faced redundancy, then early retirement with no subsidy to help us. My vets bills have VAT added, I dont get that back. I dont get subsidy nor do I see why I should. Farming survived through the ages without subsidy. Why should my sons pay high taxes to live in tiny houses with no gardens, face stressful jobs, suffer just as much anxiety as struggling farmers so that fat cats can enjoy their cream?

What happens in New Zealand and Australia? Do they get subsidies? Certainly food in those countries is much cheaper than UK food.

Oliver Walston is despised by many because he is rich. I expect that I will be despised because Im not.

Mrs E Rogers

Church Lane, Bulphan, Upminster, Essex.

Doomed to fail with no support

Having just watched another instalment of Oliver Walstons views on British agriculture, again I was amazed by how the facts are being fudged.

Let us use the hill farmers plight as an example. We have a population that likes eating lamb, we have a countryside which needs sheep grazing to preserve its beauty and we have farmers willing to shepherd. The final ingredient for a successful upland economy is a lamb price paid by the consumer which will support this important infrastructure.

The problem is there are those, such as Mr Walston and the supermarkets, who believe all UK farmers should produce food at world market prices while living in a country which is a member of the G8 group, one of the worlds eight most wealthy countries, with a costly standard of living to match.

It ought to be obvious that receiving a world price for your produce, while paying a much inflated UK price for your purchases is unsustainable. That is why an unsupported UK agriculture is doomed to fail.

Darren Tebbitt

26 Hill Row, Haddenham, Ely, Cambs.

Oliver must run affairs better

I note that Oliver Walston managed to make an annual profit of only £200,000 in the mid-1990s off 810ha (2000 acres) of prime East Anglian land with no rent and no mortgage. May I suggest that he spends more time running his own affairs and less interfering with those of others?

A G Ponsonby

The Common Barn Farm, Little Faringdon, Lechlade, Glos.

With friends like him…

With friends like Oliver Walston, British farmers do not need enemies.

Dick Lindley

Birkwood Farm, Altofts, Normanton, West Yorks.

Look after the small producers

Although I have not seen Against the Grain, reading viewers strong reactions caused me to recall the letter from your anonymous farmer (Nov 17). He was also in Oliver Walstons league.

I also remembered the far more numerous letters complaining of hardship from those who have slipped through the net of CAP support, either through unattainable quota, lands taken on which were not registered for IACS area payments, or from those farming on a small commercial scale. To these farmers, CAP reform is necessary to ensure their survival as well as the rural communities in which they live.

Young would-be starter farmers of 42-84ha (100-200 acres) cannot get started because of the heavily over-subsidised large farmers throwing their surplus subsidy moneys into unrealistically high rents.

The NFU and CLA both claim that most of their members are smaller family farmers and land owners, and yet seek to protect the interests of large-scale farmers. Both are vehemently opposed to any form of modulation that would benefit most of their members.

The NFU and CLA is a club to look after the interests of a few of the largest, financed by the subscriptions of smaller producers; modulated so that the largest pay least an acre thats discrimination against the majority.

If full modulation or capping was introduced both CLA and NFU would start screaming discrimination. Nevertheless, the 202ha (500 acre) plus producer would still be getting more subsidy than the 42-60ha (100-150 acre) man.

So what is really needed in the forthcoming CAP Agenda 2000 discussions? Equality without discrimination. That would mean one equal payment for all, so no one gets more or less than his neighbour. With full equality, there would be no discrimination or falling through the net of EU support. And it would be much cheaper to administer than those familiar IACs forms.

Sam &#42 Swaine

Friesland Farm, Huntingdon Road, Conington, Cambridge.

MLC should pay Labour

Instead of MLC spending £2.5m promoting British meat, it would be better to donate £1m to the Labour Party as Tesco and Sainsbury has done. People may say it is corruption, but the government has given them the green light on everything.

When the Tories are again the most popular party, farmers could switch their annual payment of £1m to them. It appears all is fair in love and politics.

George Hill

Kingsett Farm, Horndon, Mary Tavy, Tavistock, Devon.

How efficient is organic sector?

With reference to Joey Hughes letter (Jan 18), it is interesting to note that Mr Hughes does not quote figures to support his claim that organic farming is more energy efficient than any other form of agriculture.

Having looked up the notes I took on this subject as a student, (lecturer Prof C Spedding), it appears that about 40% of the support energy required per ha of a cereal crop is in the form of fertilisers and pesticides. Therefore, the maximum saving an organic farmer can make is this 40% per ha. That does not consider the extra energy organic farmers use applying slow release fertilisers such as animal manures, or controlling weeds such as couch.

Perhaps Mr Hughes can supply the appropriate figures for organic farming, and internalise (if he must use the dreadful word) the innate inefficiency of animal production in energy terms when compared with crop production?

W T Green

White House Farm, Bozeat, Wellingborough, Northants.

Organics and diesel dont mix

Like a great many farmers, I am interested in converting my farm to organic production. But I am concerned about surviving without using that most toxic and carcinogenic of agrochemicals, diesel. I cant help thinking that it would be a tiny bit hypocritical to carry on using it if the whole idea is to farm without agrochemicals.

Could someone from the organic movement pop down from the Moral High Ground and resolve this dilemma for me?

Charlie Flindt

Manor Farm, Hinton Ampner, Alresford, Hampshire.

MAFF backing free farrowing

I share the concerns expressed (Opinion, Jan 15) about the increasing difficulty in securing funding for agricultural research.

But I wish to correct one misconception. The article implied that the only work being conducted into free farrowing systems was funded solely by industry. That is not the case. Between 1995 and the end of the 1998/99 financial year, MAFF has invested £1.76m into research concerning sow and piglet welfare from farrowing until weaning. This research (based at ADAS Terrington, The Scottish Agricultural College, The Babraham Institute and Cambridge University) has provided valuable information into the effect of different farrowing systems on sow and piglet welfare.

Over the same period, ADAS has been involved in two projects concerning free farrowing systems. The most recent project, run by Steve Malkin, is investigating ways to maximise piglet welfare, survival and growth in community lactating systems.

Work about to start at the CAMBAC pig research centre underlines the importance of this area to the industry. The results will undoubtedly add to the body of evidence which is necessary in the development of new systems and future policy. But please do not lose sight of the fact that both the government and industry are working towards a common goal, and that is improved animal welfare.

Jon E L Day

Pig welfare researcher and project director, Free farrowing systems, ADAS Terrington.

Fuzzy logic in banning beef

I find it incomprehensible that government can pressurise parents into having their small children vaccinated against measles which we know kills some 300 children a year. Parents are given the choice to risk or not to risk their precious lives.

Yet the latest from the chief veterinary officer or his second in command is that we retain the ban on beef on the bone which has an infinitesimal risk. It is also purchased, or would be, by grown ups who can decide for themselves to buy or not to buy. But the government is happy to let parents subject babies to a known quite considerable risk. Is this the meaning of fuzzy logic?

Mrs Ella C Lenton

The Bungalow, Great Bramshot Farm, Bramshot Lane, Fleet, Hants.

Water directive is not law yet

I was pleased to see Tony Pextons response (Jan 15) to my Talking Point (Dec 18) on nitrate vulnerable zones. He has cleared the air.

He says unanimity is required to alter the nitrates directive because of the water framework directive. Not so, the WFD is not law yet. It is the WFD which proposes qualified majority voting on the 50 nitrate limit. That is why I am trying to change the WFD before it becomes law.

He says there is "substantial scientific evidence which favours a higher control limit". Not so, the latest scientific evidence shows that there is no reason for a higher limit.

I now have confirmation from MAFF that it accepts nitrates do not cause eutrophication in rivers. There are no health dangers in nitrates at, or well above, natural levels and serious health dangers if they are below. So why does Tony support a maximum nitrate limit which is below a natural level?

The latest date for NVZs to be implemented is December 1999. Tony is right to say that the EU wanted an earlier date but why should he support unelected bureaucrats in their empire-building, when farmers pay for this folly?

He says that NFUs priority on NVZs is "to improve the way they are being implemented". Why? What good do they do? He is aiding and abetting the placing of a financial straitjacket on farmers, instead of defending them against it. Can he now give one valid reason why he and NFU support NVZs?

He says I am tilting at windmills. No I am tilting at the NFU.

A S Monckton

The Estate Office, Stretton Hall, Stafford.

Happy to end BPC confusion

Your article (Arable, Jan 15) highlighting the value to the industry of the potato storage work funded by the British Potato Council at Sutton Bridge Experimental Unit contained some impressions that warrant clarification.

First, concerning the future of SBEU, we have said publicly that we are examining the best options for maximising the value of levy payers funds. We are examining alternatives to management agreements which also safeguard the future of potato storage research. We will continue to invest in potato storage research and we are continuing the current programme at SBEU.

Second, the comment that "the BPC terminated the contract mainly due to a failure to meet management targets" is incorrect. The BPC indicated in the original announcement that we had taken advantage of a one year break clause in the management agreement to examine our options. Our public statement specifically thanked Rotagrow members for their efforts during the past 15 months during a difficult transition period.

David F Walker

Chairman, British Potato Council, 4300 Nash Court, John Smith Drive, Oxford Business Park South, Oxford.

Whos to blame for wildlife risk?

A lot has been said about how farmers look after the environment as if it was their sole purpose in life. (I know a few to whom it is.) Land use is governed by climate and geology. Where would Exmoor ponies and otters be if Devon was flat and covered in Fenland peat? Do not blame bad publicity or ill-informed comments when the public is presented with falling wildlife numbers. Wildlife lives on your farms – your trees, meadows, rivers, etc. To blame the publics desire or government policy for cheaper food leading to increases in fertiliser/pesticides, etc, is like a speeding motorist blaming Ferrari for building a fast car. It was your choice and if you had bothered to listen and care enough the decline would not have been nearly so dramatic.

Rightly or wrongly the public wants and will most likely get a greater input into environmental matters on your farm. Farmers have more chance of influencing policy if leading from the front, not being dragged along encumbered with excessive and maybe unnecessary legislation.

J Plowe

79 Huntingdon Road, Thrapston, Kettering, Northants.

How French label beef…

I refer to recent correspondence in your columns about the definition of Scottish beef.

On Jan 14, the Casino supermarket in Beaune, Central France, had for sale beef labelled: "Born, reared and killed in France".

Even written in French that seems a pretty unequivocal statement. Moreover, under the European beef labelling regulations, such a statement would have to be independently verified by a certification body, accredited to EN45011.

Thats a good example of the UK beef industrys competition in action.

E M Rose

Director, Production Authentication Inspectorate, Rowland House, 65 High Street, Worthing, West Sussex.

Pay farmers to be carers

I would like to share these views with FW readers:

We do not have too many farms.

We do not produce too much food.

The countryside needs maintaining as it is, especially in less favoured areas of the UK.

The environmental lobby in government is becoming increasingly powerful. It might support additional income for farmers in LFAs.

To gain public support, farmers have to be seen to care for their cows and sheep until ready for market.

Farmers are carers and should be eligible for welfare headage payments for their animals. They already maintain livestock to a code of welfare but receive no financial payment for doing so. And returns from the market are just inadequate.

L Griffiths

Llancayo, Usk, Monmouthshire.

Organic meat unity is vital

I write concerning John Baileys comment on the growth and development of the organic meat market (News, Dec 18).

Perhaps it is not surprising that Lloyd Maunders should fail to give credit to the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative for having broken the link between conventional and organic livestock prices. Its not necessarily in its interest to see a group of farmers organising themselves in order to get a fair return for their produce. In the past, it has been the big buyers, including the abattoirs, that have dictated prices to farmers.

OLMC is attempting to create an alternative to this situation. Our members recognise that the only way to get a fair return is by controlling how our livestock is marketed. We can get sufficient bargaining power to negotiate with the big buyers and get decent prices. Not only have we broken the link between conventional and organic prices, but we have been able to negotiate prices through to April 1999.

There are costs involved in running a marketing co-operative such as ours, and we cover those by charging a small commission. Large buyers such as Lloyd Maunders are buying direct from farmers, sometimes with no commission. Several farmers are falling for this and selling direct. What they fail to see is that the short term benefit undermines the longer term prospects of getting decent returns.

Once the large buyers have killed off marketing groups such as ourselves, they will force prices for organic meat back down again. And the only people who will suffer are farmers.

Wake up organic farmers and look to the longer term. We will only have a future if we take an active role in the marketing of our produce.

If we do not act together, we will see the organic market go the way conventional livestock went in 1998.

Chris Wardle

Member, Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative, Upper Pant Farm, Llandewi Rhydderch, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire.

Play big boys at own game

Former NFU president Sir David Naish told farmers attending the recent Semex Conference to "cease war on supermarkets and support them".

But we should remember, supermarkets are driven by one thing – profit. They will do and say whatever is needed in pursuit of it.

Farmers now in adversity are just beginning to realise this. So, rather than falling further into bed with them, we must take them on at their own game. Farmers must get collectively involved in order to seek a fair return for their produce. They must deal with the major retailers as equals.

A strong NFU, with the full backing of its members, is the obvious way to achieve that aim. The union must be led as never before by a real go-getter who must enjoy the unanimous support of our industry.

Sir David had a unique opportunity when he was president to instigate massive changes here and in Europe. In March 96 the BSE bubble burst. He had an industry in the palm of his hand looking for a strong and determined lead.

Had he fully appreciated that, many of the changes we are now looking for would have been achieved already.

Bernard Fox

Willows Farm, Akeley, Bucks.

OP syndromes need research

I do not think that I can be the only person who has vowed not to defend, in knee-jerk fashion, official scientific thinking – having stoutly told "the organic lobby" that there was nothing wrong with beef.

So I think Mr Crisp (Letters, Jan 15) is unwise to state categorically that "OPs have been used "without harm".

Many farmers and their families feel that this is too glib a statement. Organophosphates are a neurotoxin – their role is to damage nerves. Nerves do not regenerate. The argument that OPs in sufficient quantity are toxic, causing nerve damage, but that chronic exposure cannot cause chronic injury to nerves is not logical, or sustainable. It can never be said absolutely that something is safe – merely that it has not been proven to be unsafe. If Mr Crisp is so sure, I challenge him to pour a little drop of OP on his hand – not enough to cause symptoms of acute poisoning – and repeat this every so often throughout his life. I do not think he would feel comfortable doing this. It follows that caution would be sensible.

Many farmers, with "sheep-dippers flu" from which they have never recovered, many Gulf war veterans with Gulf war syndrome and many ME sufferers feel they are entitled to proper research into chronic OP exposure. The recent British research into Gulf war syndrome must be treated with some scepticism. The report was chaired by a psychiatrist with a long track-record of opinions in this field. If you want to know the result of an inquiry before it is undertaken, pick the chairman carefully.

There is a way to avoid all this argument. The government should put substantial funds into basic research on the prevalence, symptoms, incidence and duration of the three syndromes I mentioned. Unfortunately research is nearly all funded by chemical and drugs companies, which means urgently needed research which might be against those interests must be publicly funded.

Helen McDade

22 Andrew Lang Crescent, Saint Andrews, Fife.